by Michael Woods
In what amounts to a cookery lesson, Circe describes the various ways in which all parts of a pig could and should be cooked. In doing this she is able to relive the memory of when she once had the power to change men into pigs.
It seems that Circe has never quite got over being outwitted by Odysseus and her monologue, delivered to an audience of 'nereids and nymphs', allows her to anatomise pigs which are, in her mind, men. This clearly presents Circe as a representative of women dissecting and cooking men in a way that relishes the power to do so. It is also an act of revenge.
The first stanza details the various sorts of pig and their characteristics. These are clearly intended to be analogous to human males. Some have 'yobby, porky colognes', they may be 'hogs' or 'runts' and make unappealing noises such as 'oinks', 'grunts' or 'squeals'. The image of Circe feeding them 'with a pail of swill' conjures the picture of men at their bestial worst. The link established with the second stanza through enjambment indicates the fluency of the speaker and her control, 'But I want to begin with a recipe from abroad / which uses the cheek- and the tongue in cheek / at that'. Something which is 'tongue in cheek' is intended as a joke but there is also something seriously sinister about what begins to sound like a pathologists recording of procedure rather than a cook's. She remembers the tongues of men and their skills to 'lick' and 'lubricate' although she is still ostensibly talking about pigs. The enjambment at lines 16-7 betrays this as she remembers something else the tongue is used for, 'to lie / in the soft pouch of the face'. Before we finish reading the complete clause we are alerted to a pun on the word 'lie'.
The detail in stanza two that 'each pig's face / was uniquely itself' with its emphasis on the past reminds the listening nereids and nymphs that they are dead. Circe grants that they may have been 'handsome', 'cowardly' or brave' but they share the common characteristic of 'piggy eyes'. The periodic instructions 'to strew with salt and cloves' and to 'Season with mace' show the cook pointing out that there can be no room for false sentiment.
The third stanza is an even more trenchant effacement of what pigs were in life and the cooking processes described are again easily seen as applicable to men. Their ears may be 'singed', 'boiled' or 'scraped'. A 'simmering lug' furnishes revenge for the female who was never listened to. The nymphs are exhorted to 'Mash / the potatoes…open the beer.' The comic timing of Duffy's writing is very acute in this poem and this stanza provides a fine example. Circe continues with relish to deal with other parts of the body, enjoying the power of emasculation as she takes the 'sweetmeats' from the 'vulnerable bag of the balls.' The final, repeated instruction concerning the heart 'dice it small' illustrates Circe's strength of feeling. The final stanza sees her allowing herself, in spite of herself, a wistful, erotic and lyrical reverie concerning a time when she 'was younger', desired and 'hoping for men' but this is curtailed by the emphatic close: Now, let us baste that sizzling pig on the spit once again.'
Circe's feelings are far from uncomplicated and are representative of many who may have sensed promise in such mystery as the 'three black ships' that 'sighed in the shallow waves' but end up beached by the reality of betrayal. Her single direct reference to men renders the whole of her preceding address and demonstration an attack on them.
In Greek mythology, Circe was the daughter of Helios, the sun god and of Perseis. She lived on the island of Aeaea.
Odysseus, on his way home form the Trojan war, arrived there with his men. He sent half of them to explore the island. Making their way through a forest, they came across a valley in which there was a splendid palace. All but Eurolychus entered and were welcomed by Circe who invited them to a banquet. Observed by Eurolychus, Circe used a magic wand to turn the men into animals such as pigs, lions and dogs according to their personality traits. They were then put into stables.
Eurolychus fled and told Odysseus what had happened and the latter decided to hunt Circe down. Before he could do this Hermes appeared to him and told him to put a magic plant called moly into any drink Circe might give him and this would inoculate him against danger. Further, when Odysseus drew his sword, Circe would free his friends from her spell.
When events transpired as Hermes predicted, the threat of death persuaded Circe to change the sailors back to their original form.
Odysseus spent at least a month with Circe and he fathered a son, Lelegonus.
nereid: a female water spirit
nymph: female spirit of fields and nature